Atmospheric Resource Transformation
Atmospheric resources are transformed to useful chemical products by an innovative photosynthetic biohybrid reactor, pioneered by Co-I Peidong Yang. Inorganic photovoltaic devices are efficient light-harvesters, while living organisms produce chemicals with remarkable specificity. Our system takes advantage of each approach: using solar energy collected by semiconductors, it transforms carbon dioxide into valuable chemicals that can be used by other CUBES divisions.
Our core goals are to: 1) increase carbon dioxide and hydrogen consumption at the semiconductor-bacteria interface and evaluate hydrogen delivery mechanisms; 2) test and improve a variety of methanogen and acetogen microorganisms for use in this technology; 3) improve scaling of nitrogen and carbon fixation; 4) achieve an enhanced efficiency from the prototype demonstration of this device which is currently comparable to natural photosynthesis; 5) fix nitrogen to ammonia through nitrogenase in the biohybrid reactor; and 6) reduce carbon dioxide and monoxide to useful hydrocarbons with nitrogenase.
Enrichment of Martian Regolith to Useful Agricultural Soil
The need to process Mars soil to support a manned mission stems from the potential use of soil in building blocks and as a plant growth medium. The detection of hazardous compounds like perchlorate in the Martian regolith during recent rover missions and the measured lack of requisite nitrogen prevent in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) of the Martian surface for agricultural purposes. In collaboration with a NASA Advanced Innovation Concepts (NIAC) award, we are exploring how regolith can be detoxified of perchlorate, enriched with nutrient nitrogen from the atmosphere, and used an in-situ resource for the production of both important supplies such as oxygen and chlorine gases for downstream ISRU processes and rich microbial biomass.
Our core goals are to (1) Continue the design and implementation of an open source bioreactor (called Crucible) capable of emulating the Martian environment to study how workforce microbes perform perchlorate reduction and nitrogen fixation respectively in increasingly Mars-like conditions; (2) Interrogate the microbes in search of the genetic mechanisms that mediate survival, growth, and metabolic activity; (3) Identify limitations on activity and derive targets and future for eventual system operation optimization in parameter ranges that are more like Mars; (4) Derive bioprocesses in collaboration with the SDID for regolith enrichment for downstream processing by the BBMD and FPSD groups.
Transformation of Martian resources into usable products represents only part of an efficient ISRU scheme. Human waste, hygiene wastewater, and food waste must also be recycled into media and feedstocks.
In collaboration with ongoing human recycling efforts at NASA, each CUBES division will work to repurpose wasted byproducts. Our initial goals include: 1) use waste-derived methane to produce biopolymers customized for 3D-printing; 2) break down excess biomass from FPSD into organic feedstocks for microbial systems.